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Amanda Townsend

Building a better radiation detector

Sara Harrison

Amanda Townsend incorporates data into computer-simulated models as part of her research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to determine if there are safer and more efficient radioisotopes than iodine-131 that can be used for routine radiation detector compliance testing. (Photo courtesy of Timothy E. Margrave, Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

Spending a summer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory investigating potential material substitutes for radiation detector compliance testing might seem unusual to most, but for Amanda Townsend, it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

Townsend spent her summer as a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) Summer Internship Program. This program provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to participate in projects at federal research facilities across the U.S. The focus is to help DNDO meet its mission of “implementing domestic nuclear detection efforts for a managed and coordinated response to radiological and nuclear threats, as well as integration of federal nuclear forensics programs.”

The DNDO Summer Internship Program is funded by DNDO and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.

As a combined bachelor’s/master’s student at Colorado State University studying health physics, Townsend conducted research with the hope of finding a suitable replacement for the radioisotope iodine-131(I-131) routinely used in radiation detection system compliance testing.

“I worked with several different types of radiation detection systems to determine if a simulated I-131 source (made from cesium and barium) could be substituted for medical I-131 in routine detector compliance testing,” Townsend said.

Some sources used for testing a device’s radionuclide identification capabilities have less than ideal chemical and radiological properties that can cause contamination and other difficulties. I-131, typically used for cancer treatment, will leach from its capsule and hospital supplied container, which makes it undesirable in a laboratory setting. Its short half-life also makes it tedious to use for testing necessary to meet the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) N42 series of the Department of Homeland Security sponsored standards. Because of this, there has been interest in finding alternatives to I-131.

During her time at ORNL, Townsend conducted both lab research and office work, where she did calculations and technical writing. While the office portion of the internship might seem boring when compared to working with radioactive material, Townsend actually attributes a degree of professional development to this experience.

“Before this internship I had little to no experience writing technical papers. Publishing work from ORNL requires abiding by strict guidelines and protecting information when necessary. Learning the appropriate formats and labels was something I had never experienced before. I also learned how to adjust my writing style to fit the professional formalisms. Not only has the experience helped me gain more professional laboratory experience, it has also helped me understand a bit about professional working life, and what to expect in my future endeavors,” Townsend said.

After her summer at ORNL, Townsend began an internship at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Radioecology Laboratory in Monaco, and following the completion of her second internship, she will continue pursuing her master’s degree at Colorado State. In 10 years, Townsend hopes to have an established career and family and considers her time spent at ORNL vital to her professional development and future goals.

While summarizing her experience, Townsend said, “Having the opportunity to work at a national laboratory was invaluable. I learned a lot and met some really great people, all while participating in awesome science and exploring a new city.”